The Oscar-winning screenwriter John Osborne, better known as one of the most important British playwrights of the 1950s generation that revolutionized English-speaking theater, has authored Look Back in Anger which was revolutionary, as it gave voice to the working class.
As Dan Rebelatto notes, the year 1956 has become a prescriptive cultural market for studies of postwar British theatre. In that year, paradigmatic Angry Young Man, John Osborne, and his equally irate and irascible creation Jimmy Porter, stormed onto the stage and seemingly, so the story goes, revolutionized British theatre. Osborne was one of the prominent figures of Modern Drama, introducing the struggling life of the working class in post-war Britain and overthrew the concept of idealistic heroes and inaugurated realistic faulty antagonistic characters as heroe who defy conventions.
Looking back at Look Back in Anger, we are likely to gauge and analyse John Osborne’s approach to masculinity and relationships differently from the way original theatregoers and critics did (such as Kenneth Tynan who enthusiastically promoted the play). The play was the inspiration for not one but two important new phrases in the English language to describe British post-war theatre: the phrase ‘angry young men’ was coined to refer to a group of British writers of the 1950s who shared Osborne’s desire to rail against the Establishment, while the term ‘kitchen-sink drama’ also has its roots in Look Back in Anger. The play also inspired the title of an Oasis single ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’. The play’s influence, it would seem, has spread all over the place.
The circumstances surrounding the writing and staging of the play are as dramatic and interesting as the plot of the play itself. At this stage of his life, Osborne was living in a tiny flat in Derby with his wife, the actress Pamela Lane. The marriage was not especially happy by this point, and the home life of Jimmy and Alison Porter in Look Back in Anger sprang from Osborne’s own wedded misery. Osborne and Lane would later divorce, with Osborne starting a relationship with the actress who played Alison Porter in the original production of Look Back in Anger.
A brief plot summary may help before proceeding any further. We are presented with an everyday domestic scene: Jimmy Porter is at home on Sunday in his tiny one-bedroom flat, reading newspapers and chatting with his friend Cliff. Jimmy’s wife Alison is doing the ironing. Jimmy is from a working-class background (he owns a stall selling sweets), while Alison is from an upper-class family — and Jimmy hates her for this. Jimmy and Cliff play-fight and knock over the ironing board, leading Alison’s arm to get burnt by the iron. Jimmy goes out and Cliff stays to comfort Alison. Alison confides that she is pregnant but is scared to tell the mercurial Jimmy. Jimmy comes home and he and Alison make up, playing a game they call ‘bears and squirrels’. A friend of Alison’s named Helena rings, and Alison invites Helena to come and stay with them, which angers Jimmy so much that he says he longs for something to wrench his wife out of her ‘beauty sleep’- even the death of her own child ( Jimmy is unaware at this stage that she is pregnant). When Helena comes to stay, Jimmy is rude to both her and to his wife (again). Jimmy receives news that his friend’s mother is dying, he asks Alison to accompany him to London to visit her. Alison rejected. Jimmy goes to London alone and when he returns, his wife is away. Helena is still there, and the two of them have a row, before Helena seduces Jimmy. Helena hands Jimmy a note from Alison informing him that she is pregnant with his child.
We then move forward several months. Once more, it’s a Sunday. The scene is much the same as it was at the beginning of the play, except this time it’s Helena doing the ironing. Alison turns up, and while Jimmy is out of the room, she reveals that she lost the baby. Helena breaks up with Jimmy, and Jimmy and Alison are reconciled once more. The play ends with them playing another round of ‘bears and squirrels’.
A troubling play, Jimmy Porter no longer strikes us as the bold anti-Establishment figure telling it like it is and standing up for the working class. He comes across as boorish, self-centred, misogynistic in his treatment of both Alison and Helena, and in desperate need of some anger-management therapy. It’s difficult to feel much sympathy towards him or see him as the spokesman for a generation. Look Back in Anger is as likely to remind us of the other side to the 1950s, if anything — reminding us that post-war life was pretty wretched for many women in the years before the arrival of the permissive society in the late 1960s, and that the ‘kitchen sink’ and the ironing board were seen as their rightful place by many men and many women too, sadly.
Anger is rather a problematic feeling to deal with because usually it is attached to frustration or jealousy. The ubiquitous rage overrunning the environment of the play should be referred, in part, as toxic masculinity. The play is set in a crowded little flat and follows the feeling of alienation and anger of jimmy. He is a cis white straight male who cannot deal with the fact that he belongs to the working class and therefore his options for a better life are very limitated. Instead of getting his issues together, he moans and focuses his anger towards everyone, especially the female characters. Jimmy continually blames society and politics for averting his success too. On the one hand, Jimmy bases his life on the rage he feels and the desire for an unrestricted life of emotions. As it has been said before, he blames society for having overcontrolled his expectations and opportunities. And on the other hand, he does exactly the same towards Alison. He over controls and abuses her so much that she unwittingly changes every aspect of her to please him; it is shown in the scene she shouts “why, why, why, why!” to the irritating Jimmy who is always expecting her to justificate everything she does. Jimmy cursed Alison that her child dies; “If you could have a child, and it would die. Let it grow, let a recognisable human face emerge from that little mass of indiarufaber and wrinkles. Please — if only I could watch you face that.” Jimmy says that she has the passion of a python devouring him whole. He wanted to see Alison grovel; “ I want to see your face rubbed in the mud-that’s all I can hope for. There’s nothing else I want any longer.” He neither rested from abusing his mother-in-law, already loathing her for her being an upper class lady. When it comes to Helena, she is presented as a self-sufficient burgess. Initially, it seems like Osborne has given her more personality than Alison as Helena gives her advice to run away from her husband. Anyway, not very long after she also “falls” for Jimmy.
The play also celebrates and depicts traditional marriage including the misogynist aspects of it. For instance in the last scene, after the way Jimmy treated her, Alison represents a poor woman looking for someone to protect her, begging her husband for forgiveness. In sad truth, there exist women who have fostered some kind of Stockholm Syndrome who has got immuned to being treated like trash and still likes to be treated as such. All in all, Jimmy is seen as a victim of the system and his actions are kind of justificated because of his suffering. He does feel he is the hero working man and he has the right to blame his suffering on the world but no one else does.
Portraying a rancorous heroe, it seems that Look Back in Anger arrived like a hand grenade in British theatres, blowing apart old attitudes: as Kenneth Tynan observed upon seeing the play, it was ‘a minor miracle’ to see ‘qualities one had despaired of ever seeing on the stage’. Tynan’s praise of the play transformed its fortunes. Many of the initial reviews of Osborne’s play were negative, but after Tynan announced his love for what Osborne was doing, people’s interest was piqued. Whatever its ultimate value, Look Back in Anger deserves continued critical attention for bringing about a miniature revolution in British theatre, precisely at the point when it most needed it. Osborne was the angry man of the hour: his play was the right play at the right time.